This encounter was the very definition of a game of two halves: Manchester United and Aston Villa produced a borefest before the break and a classic cup thriller after it which featured six goals and ended with Bruno Fernandes’ and Scott McTominay’s strikes taking Erik ten Hag’s team through.
Robin Olsen was Villa’s culprit for the Fernandes goal that made it 3-2: his slipshod pass went straight to Alejandro Garnacho and when the Portuguese collected from the winger his effort deflected in off of Tyrone Mings. Then, in added time, McTominay slid home and, after Unai Emery’s men had twice taken the lead, Ten Hag can rightly hail the spirit shown by his team in refusing to be beaten and then going for the jugular.
United’s mission was to avenge Sunday’s insipid 3-1 Premier League defeat at Villa. In this quest they had Anthony Martial as the attacking spearhead in only his second start of an injury-blighted campaign, and his early touch was sharp: twice the ball was bounced in to him and twice he feathered it off to a colleague.
There was smoothness, too, in a United corner routine that featured Fernandes laying the ball short to Marcus Rashford whose cross was flighted on to Harry Maguire’s head. The captain’s connection went backwards, though, and Tyrell Malacia stabbed his attempted cross out. The left-back was better when next receiving from Rashford, forcing United’s second corner, but this time Fernandes disappointed as his delivery was easily cleared.
Each manager made seven changes, with Martin Dubravka handed a debut by Ten Hag for the hosts while Ashley Young, a former United captain, was named by Emery, who was a picture of perpetual motion inside his technical area.
The Villa manager watched United control the ball and territory but lack imagination. The Spaniard’s team also grasped for ideas when in possession and suddenly they were being turned: Fernandes’s ball to Rashford was given to Malacia on the overlap and his cross was headed, via a deflection, by Diogo Dalot on to the roof of Robin Olsen’s net.
All of this cast the contest as a test of United’s ability to break their opponents down and Villa’s prowess at counterattacking quickly to expose Maguire and the rest of his backline. It was surprising, then, when Ludwig Augustinsson created Villa’s best moment while his team were camped inside United’s half. He won a corner on the left which Douglas Luiz appeared to be flighting straight in until Scott McTominay headed clear from under the bar.
A second corner followed and this time, when the delivery pinballed out of the area, Young unloaded a volley that was always missing. Villa were soon back deep inside their territory, gratefully watching Malacia hit the ball out, a Fernandes backheel amount to nothing and Rashford waste a 20-yard free-kick as an aimless first half lacking in quality came to a close.
The second half, surely, might be less humdrum: this was the hope and this was precisely what occurred as in a breathless 60 seconds Villa surged ahead before United pegged them back. First, United thought Boubacar Kamara handballed after he won the ball and fed Jacob Ramsey, who unlocked the home rearguard with a pass that sent Ollie Watkins rushing forward to dink the opener over Dubravka. After United complaints faded and they restarted the match Dalot instantly released Fernandes down the right and his perfectly weighted ball was steered home by Martial.
Suddenly – and thankfully – the tie was alive, the crowd’s vibrancy upping the Old Trafford volume as both sides went at each other at pace. Emery made changes, one of whom, Leon Bailey, was instrumental in Villa retaking the lead. Young padded forward and floated the ball towards the back post and the forward, 90 seconds after entering, headed at goal. Dalot attempted to clear but could only beat Dubravka.
Rashford spurned a gilded chance to register United’s second equaliser by blasting wide before making amends. The unfortunate Mings slipped and Rashford shrugged off Calum Chambers and rifled in. The Villa centre-back, who failed to make Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad, now suffered further pain as his leg unintentionally helped Fernandes’s strike beat the hapless Olsen.
In the 91st minute McTominay made no mistake to leave the home support jubilant.